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“At/on the/my right hand”

May 27, 2015

Further to my posting yesterday in which I noted the curious variation-pattern in NT usage of two Greek expressions for “at the right hand,” a few additional observations and data.  In the midst of other commitments (with pressing deadlines), I can’t take the time to do the larger task of attempting to determine wider Koine preferences.  So I’ll offer results of a quick survey of the Greek expressions used in the LXX, and the Hebrew expressions translated.  (Apologies to those who don’t read Greek and/or Hebrew, but it’s a question about Greek usage in rendering Hebrew from the OT.)

First, Psalm 110:1 (LXX 109:1), which is central to the NT expressions.  The Greek here is εκ δεξιων μου, rendering לימיני .  A similar Hebrew form (לימין) used also in Psa 45:9 (LXX 44:10) and 109(LXX 108):31, rendered in each case as εκ δεξιων.  (But compare Isaiah 63:12, where לימין is translated τῃ δεξιᾳ.)  As well, εκ δεξιων renders other Hebrew forms:  Psa 91(LXX 90):7 (מימינך); Psa 110(LXX 109):5 (על ימינך); Zech 3:1 (על ימינו). So, εκ δεξιων seems to have been seen as a perfectly fine way to position someone/something on the right of someone/something else.

Occasionally, a different Greek expression is used, but in context seems roughly equivalent:  e.g., in Job 30:12 על ימין is translated επι δεξιαν, and similarly in Psa 121(LXX120):5 על־יד ימינך is rendered επι χειρᾳ δεξιαν σου.

By contrast, the LXX translators tended to use εν δεξιᾳ to render Hebrew expressions indicating something/someone in the right hand of someone else.  Compare the interesting variations in Psalm 16 (LXX 15).  In v. 8 (“he is at my right hand”)  εκ δεξιων σου = מימיני ; in v. 11, however, “in your right hand” is εν τῃ δεξιᾳ σου = בימינך .  Note also Proverbs 3:16 (“in her right hand”), where εν τῃ δεξιᾳ αυτης = בימינה ; and Isaiah 44:20 (“in my right hand”), where εν τῃ δεξιᾳ μου = בימיני .  As noted earlier, a similar Greek form, τῃ δεξιᾳ, renders לימין in Isaiah 63:12, which refers to God leading Moses “with his right hand.”

In sum, it seems to me that εν δεξιᾳ expressions in the LXX tend to be used to connote someone/something held in another’s right hand, not simply to depict someone/something positioned to/on the right of someone.  In the two instances that I discuss briefly in my essay for the Perth conference (mentioned in my previous posting), the use of εν δεξιᾳ is with reference to a person who has a close relationship with the other person.  In 1 Chronicles 6:39 (Hebrew 6:24), Asaph stands εν δεξιᾳ to his brother, and in 1 Esdras Apame (the king’s favourite concubine) sits εν δεξιᾳ to the king (and demonstrates her place in his affections!).  Contrast these with Psalm 45:9 (LXX 44:10), where the queen is pictured standing next to the king, εκ δεξιων.

So, to come back to the focus of all this, why the pattern of using εκ δεξιων consistently in quotations and direct allusions to the highly influential Psalm 110:1,but using/preferring εν δεξιᾳ in NT confessional references to Jesus as “at the right hand” of God?  If the latter arose from some early and alternate Greek translation of Psalm 110:1, why was this preserved, when it didn’t accord with the wording of Psalm 110:1 as familiarly known?  And why was εν δεξιᾳ continued as the preferred expression in Greek creeds for centuries?

See my essay (pre-publication form here) for my own tentative thoughts on the question.  (But that TLG project is what we need now.)

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  1. Deane permalink

    Yet as Enoch already sits on God’s own glorious throne (manbara sebhatihu) for certain functions, Jesus’s sitting to the right of God’s throne is not quite as an exalted, is it? I follow here Theisohn’s interpretation that there is only one throne in the Similitudes‘ heaven, and it is God’s, and it is sometimes shared by the Son of Man/Chosen One/Righteous One (contra Black, who thought there was an earthly throne also called the “throne of glory”, which seems improbable).

    Being parked off to the right in the heavenly heights is a bit of a come-down for exalted and divine humans at this point in Judaism, don’t you think? Enoch’s place on the High God’s throne is the more remarkable and profound, compared to Jesus’s position off to the right.

  2. Fred Weston permalink

    I see “ek” as implying “from” or even as, God’s very own right hand. Implying a closer relation than say, “at” his right.

    • Linguistics doesn’t consist in such impressions, or in isolating prepositions from their phrase-context. The question is what “ek dexion” and “en dexia” connoted, and why we have this pattern of usage in the NT.

  3. B Martin permalink

    I had a brief look at the various passages and was wondering whether the change in verb had to do with a change in attitude regarding Jesus/the Christ. Initially, it was God who did the placing of Jesus in the power position on God’s right side (which to me is preferable in translation rather than on right hand) but then as time went on and Jesus the Christ is seen to be equal to God, the verb changes from a middle passive to a perfect active which denotes this change.

    • Er, what instances do you find where Jesus places himself at God’s right hand?? I don’t know any.

  4. Tfj1943 permalink

    Why is ek dexion plural? Because the Hebrew it comes from is plural? Tom Johnson

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. I don’t see any difficulty in supposing that the LXX translators (different, of course, for different books) most often used good Greek idioms for such Hebrew phrases, but very occasionally gave a more literal rendering of the Hebrew. I’m not suggesting that there was anything regular about the latter (calling them a “Hebraism” was maybe misleading on my part). They are just ad hoc literal renderings, as, I would suggest, is Ps 121:5. (Job 30:12 has επι δεξιων in Rahlfs’ LXX (with no variant reading). I guess this is ordinary Greek, through the context is strange.) I’m suggesting that the NT use of Jesus sitting εν δεξιᾳ originates from a similar ad hoc literal rendering of the words of Ps 110, which was then perpetuated by credal conservatism.

    The fact that these are the only examples seems to me absolutely consistent with the suggestion that they are ad hoc literal renderings. It seems to me more problematic to explain them as having a special nuance, as you suggest, when there are so few examples to go on.

    • You may be right, Richard. Mine is only a tentative proposal based on a limited amount of data. A VERY limited spot check of a VERY FEW Greco-Roman era texts (e.g., Xenophon) suggests that εν δεξιᾳ was a good Greek expression that could be used to describe people/things to the right of someone/something. So, following your proposal, someone very early on chose to refer to Jesus as at/on God’s right hand, and either translated the Heb of Psa 110:1 with εν δεξιᾳ, or used a translation that employed that phrase, this translation of Psalm 110 no longer extant. I take it that you would favour the first option, a free ad hoc rendering of Psa 110:1 made “on the fly” so to speak, which then became sacrosanct.

      • My suggestion also is only provisional. We need a lot more data, but that, I think, is a job for a postgraduate student!

  6. Well, my proposal is that εν τῃ δεξιᾳ is natural Greek for “in someone’s right hand”, and εκ δεξιων is natural Greek for sitting or standing “on someone’s right” (which is natural English, while sitting “at someone’s right hand” is merely biblically influenced English). The use of εν δεξιᾳ for someone sitting or standing on someone’s right is not natural Greek but a Hebraism in the two LXX examples and NT.
    Why did εν δεξιᾳ persist in credal contexts? Because credal-type formulae tend to be conservative. People say them that way because they have always been said that way. People saying the Lord’s Prayer in English still use the archaic word “hallowed” and many modern translations of the Lord’s Prayer retain it because it is so familiar.

    • You may be right, but with only two examples (and, as I suggest, special cases), it may be too bold to say that εν δεξιᾳ is simply a Hebraism for standing/sitting at someone’s side. The Hebrew of 1 Chron 6:39 (24), על ימינו isn’t peculiar, and is rendered in other Greek forms too (e.g. Job 30:12; Psa 11l:1; Psa 121:5). So why the use of εν δεξιᾳ in 1 Chron 6:39 and the example in 1 Esdras?

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